The students asked me to name my favourite sport. “Cricket,’’ I said, and no one replied. The conversation stalled.
“What is cricket?’’ asked Wang Zhao, a final-year computer science student and student union leader.
For a sense of what young China was thinking ahead of the economy’s most challenging year since two decades, I spent a morning chatting over packaged cold milk cha (tea), on green plastic chairs in the freezing canteen of the Beijing Union University.
The former Olympic volunteers who shared my cha will graduate in 2009 — the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the 20th anniversary of the army crackdown on the Tiananmen Square student protests and a year of a nationwide crisis. Finding jobs for graduates and millions of laid-off migrants will be China’s ‘top concern’ to control social order in 2009.
In August, these collegians were part of the biggest and ever-smiling army of volunteers in Olympic history. By December, they were sharing notes on the companies that still might be recruiting.
Hua Yan, a final-year finance major, has already completed eight job interviews. “A finance major during a financial crisis,’’ she laughed. “It’s the worst package for a job search!’’
Sheng Jingjing is applying to US universities to pursue an MBA, and looking for part-time work. “Students now shop less and work weekends to reduce their parents’ financial burden,’’ she said.
A record 7,75,000 students like Wang took the national civil service examination last November. Despite his computer studies major, Wang prefers a ‘stable’ government job.
None of the students expressed despair or complained about the Chinese leadership’s response to the crisis. “I tell students to stay optimistic, take extra courses until they find a job,’’ said Wang.
All three were abreast with the constant propaganda about the slew of employment policies planned for 2009. “This is just the beginning of the crisis,’’ said Sheng. “We feel confident that the government will help us.’’ In February, China will launch a graduate employment project spanning 40 universities and one million students. The details are unclear, but graduates will do research or development projects until they find jobs related to their specialisation.
Meanwhile, on New Year’s Eve, cars jamming the roads to Beijing’s hip new clubs were full of expats. Most students of the new China, brought up by parents who frown on late night parties, stayed at home with their American dreams.
Reshma Patil is China Correspondent, in Beijing.